Laughter is the one language we all speak and a natural therapy we all need to enjoy more.
The last time I remember laughing out loud in a movie theater was while watching the film Borat. I can recall the scene vividly. Borat and his manager, both of them naked and hairy, were fighting each other down the hallway of a hotel and suddenly burst into a large ballroom, interrupting a business seminar. I doubled over and literally fell off my chair, howling along with the rest of the audience. After the credits rolled, I walked out of the theater buzzing and refreshed, feeling sociable and alive, ready to face the rest of the day.
It’s no secret that laughter can be the best medicine; some even venture to call it the orgasm of the soul. But in recent years, scientists have unearthed a wealth of new information about why we laugh, what makes us laugh, and how it works on our brains. Sure, it makes us feel better, physically and mentally. But why we laugh has surprisingly little to do with jokes or funny stories. Laughter is deeply embedded in our genetic makeup. Babies laugh before they can talk or understand language. Humans of all cultures do it. We even share this primal characteristic with our closest cousins, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
“I’m struck by how laughter connects you with people,” says comedian and actor John Cleese. “It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.”
Part of the mating ritual
The University of Maryland’s Robert Provine, Ph.D., has spent years researching why humans laugh and concludes that we do so because it’s key to our social relationships. Laughing is contagious, whether we are face-to-face or in a darkened movie theater. “It is a hidden language that we all speak,” says Provine, author of the recently published book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes.
In a field study of 1,200 people, Provine’s research team discovered that few people laugh alone. We may be happy by ourselves, but we tend to laugh as a signal to others. In male-female relationships, women generally laugh more than men, while men seem to want to prompt the laughter. It appears the laughter of a female is more important to a healthy relationship than if the guy laughs much at all. In a study of personal ads, Provine found that women were more likely to seek out a man with a sense of humor, and men were more likely than women to think of themselves as humorous.
Laughter also affects our brains in a more complex manner than other behaviors. Psychology professor Dr. Peter Derks says that while emotional responses are triggered by the frontal lobe, laughter is actually produced when various regions of the brain interact with one another. He has found that laughter is a very quick automatic behavior that’s often involuntary. For instance, we don’t just laugh in response to a joke, we also laugh spontaneously when we’re relieved or surprised.
Although laughter clearly offers some health benefits, scientists continue to probe exactly how. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that laughter causes blood-vessel tissue to relax, increasing blood flow and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Their study also showed that people with heart disease tended to respond with less humor to everyday life situations.
“The ability to laugh — either naturally or as learned behavior — may have important implications in the U.S., where heart disease remains the number one killer,” says Dr. Michael Miller, who led the study. “We know that exercising, not smoking, and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular laughter should be added to the list.”
Laughter reduces levels of stress hormones and strengthens the immune system. A good cackle can override negative emotions like anger and fear, and improve mental health. And if you’re a hearty laugher, you already know that it can be a total body workout. Some researchers estimate that 20 seconds of sustained laughter is the cardiovascular equivalent of three minutes on a rowing machine.
Humans average 17 laughs a day, but if you’re under the norm that’s not an issue, according to Dr. Madan Kataria. Known as the Guru of Giggling, Kataria is founder of Laughter Yoga, an international healing movement that meshes laughter with yoga. “The idea of Laughter Club is based on the scientific fact that even if you laugh for the sake of laughing, your body cannot tell the difference whether the laughter is real or you’re just pretending to laugh,” says Kataria. “We combine laughter exercises with yoga breathing. That means more oxygen to your body, and you feel more energetic and rejuvenated.”
It sounds contrived, but Kataria’s concept is wrapping the globe with laughter. Begun in 1995, Laughter Yoga now boasts over 6,000 Laughter Clubs in 60 countries. His stress-busting corporate seminars are embraced by a growing list of clients like Volvo and HP.
Whatever makes you laugh, pursue it more often, whether it’s reading The Onion, seeing stand-up comedy, listening to funny podcasts or watching Will Ferrell films. If you know people who love to laugh, at work or after office hours, try to socialize with them more. Take classes in improvisational comedy to develop and broaden your own sense of humor. And the next time you say to yourself, “I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe,” keep in mind that you’re actually treating your body and mind to a natural therapy that’s available to every one of us.
Copyright © Jack Boulware/2011 Singular Communications, LLC.